Eating Guide to Lisbon

by Mandy de Azevedo Coutinho

Portuguese gastronomy is generally unsophisticated but wholesome, reasonably priced and served in large quantities. Most dishes are prepared with olive oil and flavoured with aromatic herbs such as bay leaves and coriander, but there is also a certain influence from the ex-colonies, using spices like curry and chillies.

Soups are available in most restaurants and are mostly vegetable and potato based.  Fish and seafood are basic elements of Portuguese gastronomy but “bacalhau” (dried salted cod, prepared in a seemingly endless variety of ways once the salt has been washed off) is the national dish! A staple in the summer months are sardines, whose barbecuing smell is instantly associated with Portugal. In general, meat dishes are often very ordinary, but chicken, pork and game, somehow seem to be much tastier in Portugal – probably because it is mostly free-range. Rice and potatoes (boiled, roast or fried) plus a simple salad usually accompany meat or fish dishes, but green vegetables are rarely served! The Portuguese tend to eat their vegetables at home not when out dining, but do ask for them – they will be simply boiled but quite tasty.  It is worth pointing out for vegetarians, that chicken and ham is often not considered to be meat by the Portuguese and is sometimes added to a cheese omelettes or salads. Soups are also sometimes made with chicken or beef stock and served with lumps of meat. Cheese is mainly made from ewes and goats milk and restaurants often serve small fresh and dry cheeses with your bread and butter – cut a slice off and bite into it, they are delicious. Portuguese desserts and pastries are mostly egg based and very sweet, but restaurants also serve single pieces of fruit. Many of the rich and sticky sweet recipes originate from ancient convents. Pastries can be eaten at any time of the day with a coffee at any “pastelaria” (pastry shop).


A typical snack food of Portugal and very popular in the Lisbon area are “caracois” (snails), normally eaten between June and August. Portuguese snails have nothing to do with the French escargot and are quite small and simply boiled with garlic and herbs, but there is nothing better than an “imperial” (cold draft larger) and a plate of snails to snack on, at an outdoor cafe or bar, after a day at the beach. I dare you to try some too!

Alternatively go for the vegetarian version and try some “tremoços” (lupin beans). There is a certain art to eating these, first cut the outer skin with your teeth, then squeeze between two fingers and pop it into your mouth. They don’t have a strong flavour but they are salty and once you start to eat them it’s like popcorn – you just can’t stop!

Caldo Verde” (a thick cabbage and potato soup) is served with a slice of pork sausage and is another must have, especially as a winter warmer.

Eating “sardinhas” (sardines) in the summer is a national pastime but in Lisbon they are also the symbol of the June Santos Populares city festivities, as they are at their best at this time of the year.  In a restaurant they will be served with a salad and potatoes; on the streets they will be served in a bread roll.

Seafood reigns supreme in Lisbon, from simply boiled prawns to clams in a coriander and wine sauce, or “percebes” (gooseneck barnacles) – this true delicacy of Portugal is scraped from ocean rocks, looks like a carpenter’s thumb, feels like a rubber hose and tastes sweeter than lobster with a hint of the sea!  Considered one of the best seafood eateries in the city “Ramiro” at Avenida Almirante Reis #1 is always crowded with a rather loud and exciting atmosphere. However, you’ll never have to wait longer than 5-10 minutes for a table; the waiters are very friendly as well as being very good at making sure your beer never runs dry; and all at a good price.  And then there is the Cervejaria Trindade near the Chiado district - Portugal‘s oldest brewery has beautifully tiled walls as well as serving great seafood.  But if seafood if this is not your thing, either restaurant offers other dish alternatives, so go anyway, if just for the atmosphere!

Bifanas” (pork sandwiches) or “Prego no Pão” (steak sandwiches) are another Lisbon café staple – made with marinated and fried meat stuffed into a bread roll, they are delicious!

Frango no Churrasco” (barbecued chicken) with “Piri-Piri”  (added hot chili sauce) evolved from Portugal’s discoveries age, when sailors brought spices back from their travels. There are plenty of “churrascarias” around the city, selling freshly barbequed chicken take away at reasonable prices , as well as beverages, simple salads & puddings – ideal for when you have just come off the beach, and don’t feel like cooking.

In the Sintra Mountains near Lisbon, the “Queijada” (cheesecake) is the specialty. This small pie wrapped in pastry is made with fresh cheese and has a pronounced cinnamon flavor that reflects Portugal’s Moorish past. The recipe, which reportedly dates back to the 13th century, is a closely-guarded secret.

But  Lisbon’s most symbolic pastry is without doubt the “pastel de nata” (custard tart) or “pastel de Belém” , believed to have been created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the  Mosteiro dos Jerónimos  in Belém on the Lisbon riverside. Although you can now find them in any of the city’s many cake shops, the Casa de Pastéis de Belem was the first place outside the monastery selling the creamy dessert after it closed in 1820s, hence the name.

This factory turned cafe still exists today, with dozens of people queuing daily to get them warm out of the oven, sprinkled with cinnamon or powdered sugar. But the stunning factory building alone, is lined with ancient blue and white tile and deserves a visit.

The unmistakable smell of “castanhas assadas” (roasted chestnuts) is a sign that autumn has arrived in Lisbon when chestnut roasting trolleys can be found in just about every street corner of the city –  €2 will get you a dozen roasted chestnuts wrapped in newspaper to eat on the go.

At Christmas time, trying some “bolo rei” (king’s cake) is a must.   The cake itself is round with a large hole in the centre, resembling a crown covered with crystallized and dried fruit. Also included is a”fava” (dried broad bean) and tradition dictates that whoever finds it will have to pay for next year’s cake. The original recipe was allegedly brought from Paris by the son of the owner of the Confeitaria Nacional bakery and it soon became a success. Founded in 1829, several generations later this charming patisserie is still owned by the same family and is located at Praça da Figueira in the city centre.

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